As victim assistance coordinators, most (if not all) of us have witnessed how frightening and intimidating interaction with the criminal justice system can be for victims of crime. Imagine being able to offer additional advocacy for victims with the use of a highly trained service dog.
Our collection of submissions from prosecutor-based service dog programs reveals that our canine companions are invaluable during the criminal justice process. Crime victims and witnesses truly open up and feel more comfortable while accompanied by—or merely in the presence of—a loving dog.
In the last issue of this journal, we asked for your submissions and photos of service dogs in your communities, and VACs in Bexar, Dallas, Montgomery, Nacogdoches, Smith, and Travis Counties responded. If you are considering a service dog program, the following programs may be of interest to you.
Director of Victims Services in the Bexar County Criminal District Attorney’s Office
The Bexar County District Attorney’s Office has utilized therapy or victim assistance dogs in the office for the past seven years. It began with a beautiful golden retriever named Chance. Chance’s human “mom,” Becky Snodgrass, is a member of the legal support unit with Child Protective Services.
Chance began his career in victim services by attending the adoption ceremonies of many of the foster children who had been removed from abusive homes by CPS. His role then grew into visiting the DA’s office and spending time with the children who were being interviewed by prosecutors in preparation for trial. We found that kids who spent time with Chance appeared to be calmer and felt safe with him around. Our child victims were more willing to share their story with the dog because they felt no judgment, only unconditional love and wet kisses. Fortunately, the prosecutors were also able to benefit, as this helped them gain the trust of the child.
Chance became such an integral part of the DA’s office that Becky had to bring us all “diet” treats for Chance because he was gaining too much weight. Turns out, he was visiting people from office to office and getting something yummy from everyone! Sadly, in 2011 we all grieved the loss of Chance. We missed seeing our big, beautiful, furry friend.
Fortunately for us and for our child victims, we began our relationship with WAGS Across Texas, and Becky adopted Sampson, another gorgeous golden retriever. Once again all was right with our world! We use Sampson and other therapy dogs from WAGS Across Texas for various events in the office. On any given day Sampson will be visiting with children who are in the office for pre-trial conferences or waiting to testify in trial. He and other dogs are also team members of our Kids/Teens-in-Court program, and they also spend the day with us at our annual Children’s Picnic during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. We have not yet taken any of our dogs directly into the courtroom for trial, but we know that day is coming. We are looking for just the right case to take this step and set a precedent in Bexar County for the use of therapy dogs in the courtroom.
For more information about WAGS Across Texas, please visit www.wagsacrosstexas.com.
Investigator in the Dallas County Criminal District Attorney’s Office
Roper came to our office in July 2010 from Patriot Paws of Rockwall, an organization that trains service dogs for disabled veterans. The folks at Patriot Paws quickly realized that Roper was more of a lover than a worker, so it was determined that he would be the perfect four-legged companion for the kids in the Child Abuse Division of our office.
Due to the successful use of therapy dogs by the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, those of us in the Child Abuse Division understood the need for a dog that could help child witnesses in court. These children have been victims of either physical or sexual abuse and are very vulnerable. Roper comes to work every day with me, his handler.
Roper can sit with the kids during trial prep, walk with them to the courtroom, and comfort them when they have finished giving testimony about the horrible things that have been done to them. Roper seems to know when they are hurting and will lie down and cuddle with them or just stay by their side and allow them to pet him. Roper has been able to sit with the victims only during hearings, not at jury trials due to defense objections, but just knowing that he is waiting for them provides many children great comfort and helps put them at ease. The division was very lucky to get a dog as sweet and helpful as Roper.
For more information about Patriot Paws of Rockwall, visit www.patriotpaws.org
Victim Assistance Coordinator in the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office
Ranger the DA Dog is our courthouse facility dog, which means that he is an expertly trained service dog partnered with a criminal justice professional and assigned to an institution rather than an individual. It will be two years this July that we acquired Ranger from Service Dogs, Inc., where he received extensive training and I, as his handler, received some basic training. Ranger is an employee of the MCDA’s office, and he comes to work with me each day and goes home with me every evening. Ranger attends court dockets, participates in victim interviews, and if needed, will accompany victims, especially children, when they testify in court. We have found that with Ranger present, our victims feel more comfortable about completely opening up about the abuse that has been perpetrated against them.
For more information about Service Dogs, Inc. visit www.servicedogs.org.
in Nacogdoches County
Helper is a 2-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix owned by Canine Companions for Independence. We learned about the program after speaking with the Smith County DA’s Office in Tyler. They have a dog from the same company (more about Smith County’s dog below).
Helper is classified as a facility dog. Her main job is to love on all of our victims and witnesses when they are in the office and help to reduce their stress when faced with the task of testifying in court. Her presence has the added bonus of providing a bit of “puppy therapy” to our employees when the day gets stressful. She spends 40 hours a week in our office and goes home with me during her off-hours. We were partnered with her in February 2014 and have already seen her sweet nature relieve the stress suffered by many who pass through our office.
For more information about Canine Companions for Independence, visit www.cci.org.
Sherry L. Magness
Victim Services Director in the Smith County District
My professional life was forever changed on February 14, 2011, when I received my first facility dog named Macy. Macy worked by my side for a short 10 months before she was diagnosed with bone cancer.
We received our successor dog, Petra, on May 6, 2012. Petra, a Golden Retriever-Labrador mix, underwent extensive training with Canine Companions for Independence. It is estimated that the cost of training is around $50,000 per dog, but Canine Companions places all of its dogs for free to accepted applicants. Facility dogs placed by Canine Companions have the same training as service dogs; because of this training, Petra is allowed to go to the witness stand with child victims.
I am so glad that our Criminal District Attorney, D. Matt Bingham, was willing to step out to utilize a facility dog! The use of facility dogs in the courthouse setting has brought about a major change in how we meet the emotional needs of all involved in the criminal justice system. Petra’s calming presence promotes justice with compassion. As a facility dog, she comes to work everyday and makes the criminal justice system more bearable for the most vulnerable of people. She is naturally drawn to children and they are drawn to her. Children come to my office and are forced to talk about the most unspeakable things. Yet when they leave, they are excited to return, if only to see Petra again.
Although we got Petra with the child victims in mind, we have discovered that she has a calming effect on the courthouse staff, prosecutors, legal assistants, and everyone who comes in contact with her.
But Petra’s days are not all work and no play. We have tea parties and Hot Wheel parties for our little victims, and Petra always enjoys participating. This helps the long hours waiting for trial to conclude seem a little more bearable. Sometimes it is time for a good game of fetch. Whatever the victim needs, Petra is always there to help. At the end of a long day she is always ready to snuggle with her favorite toy.
Two great resources for finding out more about the use of courthouse dogs are www.cci.org and www.courthousedogs.com.
Stacy Miles-Thorpe, LCSW, in the Travis County District
Here in Travis County we are fortunate to have a therapy dog named Sidney. Her handler is a therapist at the Center for Child Protection and is available to meet with us and to attend court. There are times when we’ve had child abuse trials set and we weren’t sure if the child would be able to speak a word on the stand, much less tell the account of their abuse while facing the abuser. Sidney has worked miracles in some of those cases. For example, we had one child who was so terrified that she hid under the table in our first meeting. After visits with Sidney, she could whisper what happened in Sidney’s ear. Eventually she was able to sit on the stand with Sidney at her side and let a courtroom full of strangers know what had happened to her.
For more information about Delta Society Pet Partners, visit www.petpartners.org.
In-office victim services visits
In recent weeks, my TDCAA travels have taken me to Milam and Mason Counties. It was such a pleasure to visit with Milam County and District Attorney Bill Torrey and his staff in Cameron, and it was equally refreshing to speak with newly appointed Mason County Attorney Rebekah Whitworth and her assistant in Mason. It was great to brainstorm ways to offer assistance to crime victims in accordance with Chapter 56 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Additionally, in April I visited an innovative victim services program in the Harris County Family Criminal Law Division (FCLD) in Houston. Shadowing their program was so enlightening. I was very touched by how the numerous social workers employed by this division assist each and every crime victim who approaches the office, even though the victims may be reluctant and uncooperative. The social workers, directed by Jennifer Varela, LCSW, work one-on-one with crime victims in a very organized and professional manner, demonstrating compassion while collecting pertinent data helpful in the prosecution process.
Thanks to each of these offices for allowing me to shadow or offer support to your victim services programs!
Please e-mail me at Jalayne [email protected] for inquiries or support or to schedule an in-office consultation. And stay tuned for more information and the results of our recent TDCAA Victim Assistance Coordinator Needs Assessment Survey in the next issue of The Texas Prosecutor journal.
A note about the KP
and VAC Boards
In early May the TDCAA Key Personnel & Victim Services Boards joined together to plan workshops for the TDCAA Annual Criminal & Civil Law Update (in South Padre September 17–19) and the Key Personnel & Victim Assistance Coordinator Seminar (in San Antonio November 5–7). We snapped the photo below to commemorate the meeting. Many thanks to each of you for your time, effort, and dedicated service to our TDCAA service boards.
Also note that elections for the 2015 TDCAA Victim Services Board (Regions 1, 3, 5, and 7) will be September 18 at the Annual Update in South Padre Island. The Victim Services Board assists in preparing and developing operational procedures, standards, training, and educational programs, and regional representatives serve as a point of contact for each region. To be eligible, candidates must have the permission of their elected prosecutors, attend the elections at the annual conference, and have paid membership dues prior to the meeting. The bylaws for the board and a map of the regions are posted at www.tdcaa.com/victim-services.
Please mark your calendars for TDCAA’s upcoming seminars. For more information, call 512/474-2436 or go to www.tdcaa.com/training.